Tablets, tablets everywhere
Of course when I spotted the title of this article in my feed reader, I had to take a look. I suspected — given the year, 1983 — that it was about some prototype belonging to the SnowWhite Project, a concept that started the long and fruitful collaboration between Apple and frogdesign (yes, it’s spelled this way, all in one word, with a lowercase ‘f’). And when I saw the photos I immediately recognised Bashful. However, I didn’t remember it as a prototype tablet, more as a prototype notebook. So I checked The Book (that’s how I call AppleDesign: The work of the Apple Industrial Design Group by Paul Kunkel, New York, Graphis, 1997), and although it says at one point that the Bashful prototype had to have a 8.5 by 11 inch touch-sensitive, liquid crystal display (page 30), and at another point Bashful’s screen is described as a ‘detachable slate-like module’ (page 99), I am doubtful about calling it a tablet. I think it’s just a way to maintain the current level of hype surrounding the (hopefully) upcoming Apple device.
It’s really a matter of semantics. This Wikipedia entry about Tablet PCs should help define what a ‘tablet’, or ‘slate’ is. In most, if not all instances, a tablet device is something smaller and more portable than a notebook/laptop and, more importantly, it hasn’t got a keyboard. It may have it as an attachable option. But Bashful was the other way around: the concept, as far as I know and as far as I inferred from AppleDesign, was for a very light notebook, built in a modular way, with detachable parts (a floppy drive, a screen, a keyboard) but nowhere it’s mentioned, for instance, that Bashful could operate without a keyboard. In fact, I believe that the presence of a touch-sensitive display was meant to give Bashful some kind of added user interaction beyond the mandatory keyboard input method. Something like a notebook with graphic tablet capabilities. Maybe you could use the pen to draw on it, and select drawing tools (there was a version of Bashful that would target kids, as a matter of fact, and you can see it in the third and last picture in the Wired article), but I don’t think that it was meant to have an operating system whose interface could be solely operated with a pen or stylus in absence of the keyboard module.
Anyway, this is my impression and I could be wrong. I still think that the first handheld device, commercially available, fully usable (and designed to be used) without a keyboard, that deserves to be called tablet, or slate, is the Newton. At least in Apple’s history.
Some bits of context
So what about the other products that were meant to be part of the SnowWhite project? Here are some excerpts, again from AppleDesign:
By June of 1982, Esslinger [head of frogdesign] and BIB [another design company] had both received the Snow White design brief, which outlined the project’s goals with descriptions of eight products that would form the backbone of Apple’s future product line. […] The schedule called for work to begin in July 1982, be reviewed in September and November and conclude in January 1983 with a final presentation to the executive staff in Cupertino on March 17, 1983. […]
Named after characters in the Snow White story, complete with illustration of each character, the brief included descriptions of the eight products for which Esslinger and BIB would supply concepts:
- Doc – a next-generation Lisa computer with a 15-inch portrait display, internal 5.25-inch hard disk, 3.5-inch floppy drive, keyboard and mouse, to be shipped in 1985;
- Sneezy – a next-generation Apple II with a separate CPU, display, floppy drive and keyboard, for introduction in 1985;
- Happy – an entry-level Macintosh that would be one-third smaller in size with a 9-inch display, for introduction in late 1984;
- Bashful – a prototype notebook computer, having a 8.5 by 11 inch touch-sensitive, liquid crystal display, for introduction in 1986;
- Sleepy – a desktop mouse;
- Grumpy – a desktop dot-matrix printer;
- Dopey – an external 3.5-inch floppy disk drive; and
- Flower – an external 5.25-inch hard drive, named after a character from “Bambi.” (The Snow White story had only seven dwarfs).
[…] In January-February 1983, Esslinger’s team revised the Digital Designs concepts into 40 new hard models:
- two versions of Sneezy (Apple II) with a monitor and stand;
- three versions of Doc (Lisa) with different bezel treatments;
- two versions of Happy (entry-level Macintosh);
- the Workbench concept, which had eight elements (a track/CPU, display, floppy drive, telephone, loudspeaker, vertical dot-matrix printer, display stand, keyboard)
- three versions of Bashful, the notebook computer [nota bene: “the notebook computer”] (a one-piece concept; a modular concept; and a wedge-shaped concept that tilted the keyboard and screen toward the user), each having a 9-inch flat panel LCD display;
- three keyboard concepts (standard, extended, ultrathin) plus a piano-style keyboard for musical applications;
- three versions of Sleepy, the desktop mouse (elegant, ergonomic, avant-garde);
- three versions of Grumpy, the desktop printer;
- concepts for Dopey and Flower (stand-alone floppy and hard disk drives) and a file server to link several Doc and Happy units together into a network;
- 15-inch and 19-inch monitors with display stands; and
- connector cables for linking keyboards and peripherals with CPUs.
For those who own the AppleDesign book, or have the opportunity to access it at a library, the pictures portraying all these prototypes and concepts are at pages 96 through 100 (plates 16 through 50). They are really beautiful concepts and mockups, some of them maintaining a sober, clean, timeless style that still looks marvellous today.